Flagstaff: History

Local Springs and Railroad Draw Settlers

It is said that it is the springs that first drew people to the Flagstaff area of dry, northern Arizona. The Sinagua, Anasazi, and Cohonino tribes were the first to settle there. Ruins of the pueblos and cliff dwellings belonging to the Navaho nation and Hopi tribes can still be found in the forests and lands surrounding present-day Flagstaff. A mountain man named Antoine Leroux knew the location of a source of water at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, and in 1876 a group of New Englanders left from Boston in search of the excellent farm land that they had heard about in highly exaggerated stories. They started a settlement in present-day Leroux Springs later in the year. According to legend, it was this group who placed a flag on top of a denuded pine tree, celebrating the Centennial of the Declaration of Independence, and thus gave the city the name by which it has been known ever since.

In 1882, the arrival in Flagstaff of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad started a building boom. The site of what is today downtown Flagstaff was selected because the railroad wanted to build its new depot on flat land. The brick-fronted building that merchant P.J. Brennan erected for a new store still exists, now serving as a popular saloon and pool hall. Shortly after the arrival of the railroad, a sawmill began operations to accommodate the railroad's need for wooden ties. The new sawmill provided jobs for more than 250 people. Wood was easily attainable, as the city is near the world's largest forest of ponderosa pines.

For more than half a century, beginning in the 1880s, miles of spur rail line extended in all directions from the city. The men who engaged in the sawmill industry developed their own culture. Author Rose Houk describes "logger lingo" in which "coffee was referred to by its brand name, Arbuckle; pancakes were 'blankets;' [and] biscuits were 'doorknobs.' "

Sheep ranching got started in the mid-1880s and became big business in Flagstaff. Many of the sheep ranchers were of Basque or Spanish heritage. At the same time, cattle raising was begun by a group of Mormons at Leroux Spring.

City Becomes Observatory Site

In 1894, Andrew E. Douglass of Boston chose Flagstaff as the site for an astronomical observatory. Douglass placed the Lowell Observatory there in part because of the clear skies that good telescope viewing requires. During that same year a reform school was built, which was later to serve as the first building of what is now Northern Arizona University. In 1930 astronomer V.M. Slipher discovered the planet Pluto at the observatory. Lowell Observatory has stayed in the forefront of science, notably with its research in the area of bodies within the solar system such as satellites (moons), near-Earth asteroids, and comets.

Wildland-Urban Interface

In June and July 2002 the catastrophic Rodeo-Chediski fire grabbed national attention as the worst fire in Arizona history. Affecting Coconino County and its contiguous neighbors Navajo, Apache, and Gila Counties, the fire burned approximately 468,000 acres, the bulk of which was Ft. Apache Indian Reservation and national forest land; destroyed almost 500 homes; and cost $43 million to quell. More than $34 million in federal disaster aid was directed to the area. Flagstaff itself was not directly affected because of city leaders' and civic groups' proactive work in land use planning and response training.

In the past decade, some of Flagstaff's citizens became concerned about increasing development, mostly due to tourism, and preserving the very environment that makes the area special. Plans were developed to ensure a balance between economic opportunity and growth limits. Today, the city seems to have met and exceeded this goal. Mayor Joe Donaldson sums it up: "Flagstaff is a community raved about in many magazines as the place to invest, develop, vacation and just plain enjoy. Flagstaff prides itself in the miles of internal majestic scenic trails, multi modal transportation opportunities. . . . The community boasts of its efforts in achieving sustainable economic strength while preserving its pristine environment through community activism, emulated quality of life ordinances and resolutions driven through extensive community driven processes. Flagstaff is not just a place. It is a way of life where people become one with their environment."

Historical Information: The Historical Society, Northern Arizona University, Cline Library, PO Box 6022, Flagstaff, AZ 86011-6022; telephone (520)523-6802